Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

We've got so used to bitterness we think it's normal

Do you think when they wake up in Durham or Aberdeen or Limerick, let alone Rouen or Liege, citizens are as assailed by 'crisis' on the airwaves coupled with 'euphoria', as we are here?

All my life, it seems, the mood music in the print and broadcast media here has alternated between a kind of high-pitched whine on the one hand and a breathy, bubbly excitement on the other, with the whine, obviously, outstripping the bubbly by some distance.

Yes, there were years – decades – of dreadful daily headlines here. Civic unrest, atrocity and a low-grade undercurrent of simple fear set the tone for so many childhoods in Northern Ireland. So maybe it's not surprising we all grew up suffering from a kind of social tinnitus. The background noise of the Troubles accompanied every single occasion of note in our lives, from births, christenings to jobs, graduations and the ordinary, everyday funerals of our loved ones that are never important enough to make the news.

Turn the radio on over the snap, crackle and pop, or glimpse a headline in the garage, and it screamed crisis, tension, alarm.

And even now that we are supposedly in a 'post-conflict situation', now we are 'at peace', and have been, they say, for almost a decade and a half, the volume hasn't been turned down on the mood music, the pitch is still high and grating.

Murder and town centre demolition may not occupy the news, but don't let anyone think that 'lesser evils', from the naming of playgrounds after terrorists to the masked bullies turning back the traffic, from the as-yet underpowered pipe bombs to the persistent conviction among some loyalists that we are all in some apocalyptic zero sum game for the Union, aren't reported in the same doom-laden manner, as if in fact nothing had changed.

Maybe nothing has. Maybe the news stories (too true to be printed or broadcast) that we never see or hear because of libel laws – "A bigot said this morning that he didn't like the way things are" or "A leading convicted murderer believes justice hasn't arrived in our society yet" or "Worried about your child's future? We talk at 9 to two killers and a bomber who think everything's hunky-dory because it suits them" – account for the solemn tones accorded to the torching of an Orange hall or band-baiting of a Catholic church as if they were the Hiroshima bombing, rather than the kind of brain-dead sectarian thuggery that has been dressed up as politics here for three hundred years.

When something truly vile does happen – a murder for instance – the news has no upper register left to record the shock and anxiety. Even the amplifier in the movie Spinal Tap, which ludicrously could be turned up to 11, could still be turned to 5. Ours is at 11 all the time.

Of course, the counterpoint to crisis is the kind of googly-eyed hysteria that accompanies the many 'good things' that 'our wee country' organises or represents.

Whether it's our golfers, our pretend tourist industry, our lakes, the Giant's Causeway, the Titanic, the Titanic Centre, the City of Culture, the Odyssey or any number of feelgood things, big or small, the greeting which accompanies them from the public press is uniformly the same.

Breathless, gushing, relentless adoration, even when they're not good. Everyone benefits from such a propane-fuelled approach – talking the country/economy/society up, ie talking up the peace – except that it simply perpetuates the schizophrenia of the society we are in.

We are all more comfortable with conflict here. Such is the deep-grained sectarianism right across the board, in our little Prod and Taig burrows across the social strata, from leafy suburb to social housing, from self-regarding liberal nest in south Belfast to full-on patriarchal redoubt in the rural wilds, that the tension it generates is our natural habitat.

Peace is ordinary, you see. Nothing here is. Peace struggles to find a news story. No such problem here.

In Durham and Rennes and Liege and Limerick, they have peace. We don't. They have no news, other than hikes in parking fines, power cuts, old people dead for three weeks without being found.

Our day in Ulster begins with the same sullen voices, the same items, the same people, the same players, as it has done for 30 years, in many cases even longer.

Children get born, grow, work and die in lives which have sectarian antagonism as their soundtrack. It's not just the summer of 2013 that is beginning to look like it'll be rough. It's obvious none of us and none of our children are ever going to have a normal life.

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